Oppose the Occupation or Support Iraqi Progressives?

Richard Marchese-Robinson


            The invasion of Iraq has caused profound misery, death and destruction; at least 40833 Iraqis have been killed as a result of the invasion and subsequent occupation[1]. Acute infant malnutrition has doubled [2] and infant mortality has risen by 30% in Basra province. [3] The predictability of such consequences led most of the left in Britain to oppose the invasion of Iraq. However, opposition to the subsequent occupation took longer to crystallise; many on the liberal-left, even those who had opposed the invasion, initially argued for support for the continued presence of occupying troops in Iraq to provide security for Iraqis. Some on the left have contended that, rather than oppose the occupation, the focus of progressives abroad should be to support Iraqi progressives. Furthermore, after the intervention of an IFTU official at the 2004 Labour Party Conference opposing a resolution calling for an early withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, others on the left became deeply suspicious about supporting Iraqi trade unionists. Both such views are harmful to Iraqis: “Oppose the occupation vs. Support Iraqi progressives” is an utterly false dichotomy.

            Firstly, it is necessary to be emphatic about the reasons why progressives should oppose the occupation. 1. The occupation is not, largely, bringing security to Iraq. Only 1% of Iraqis in a recent poll said that they trust occupying troops to provide them with security [4].  Indeed, 67% of Iraqis polled last summer said the presence of the occupation made them feel less secure. [5] 2. The occupation is driving violence within Iraq – putting Iraqi lives in danger. 47% of Iraqis polled in January said they supported violent attacks against occupying troops – thus creating substantial basis for an ongoing violent insurgency [6]. Furthermore, the occupying forces have meted out brutal treatment to Iraqi towns opposing them. They have committed terrible war crimes, including the massacre of unarmed civilians, the invasion of hospitals and the near destruction of entire towns  - with the assault on Faluja the most well known [7]. 

3. The occupation is promoting sectarian violence. The occupation has generated support for violent sectarian groups[8]. Many Sunni Iraqis were driven to support al-Zarqawi after the massacre in Falluja two years ago – the US having successfully convinced many Shia Iraqis, who came to the aid of Fallujans during the first assault on that city in 2004, that the Iraqi resistance was wholly sectarian and didn’t deserve their support[9]. Furthermore, an Iraqi government dominated by Shia politicians co-operating with a hated occupation is surely breeding sectarian hatred among Iraq’s Sunni community. As Middle-East historian Juan Cole pointed out, the recent attacks directed at Shia neighbourhoods by Sunni insurgents was likely provoked by the recent US / Iraqi Government assault on the predominately Sunni Dora region [10]. Of course, it would be facile to state that all sectarian violence would cease once the occupying powers announced their intention to rapidly withdraw, but their presence is part of the problem.

            Moreover, Iraqis do not want the open ended occupation envisaged by Bush and Blair. 82% of Iraqis polled last summer “strongly opposed” the occupation. [11] More specifically, Iraqis polled in January were asked when they wanted the occupying forces to withdraw. Only 30% of respondents wanted the troops to remain “until security was restored in the country”. 70% wanted a fixed term timetable for withdrawal - 35% wanting the occupying troops to leave within a few months and 35% wanting a timetable of less than two years. [12] Of course, there are a number of reasons to be sceptical about calling for a timetable as opposed to immediate withdrawal – not least because such a timetable could be rescinded or extended by the occupying powers. Furthermore, the longer US/ UK troops remain in the country, the more of them will be killed and the more Iraqis will be killed as a result of the violence that they employ and generate. But, such is Bush and Blair’s contempt for the opinions of ordinary Iraqis, that they have refused to commit to such a basic measure – even in light of recent suggestions made by the Iraqi Prime Minister to that effect, and ignoring the fact that at least 11 Iraqi resistance groups would be prepared to co-operate with the Iraqi government if such a course were pursued. [13] 

            However, since the occupation began, there has been an argument that the best way to support Iraq is not by opposing the occupation, but by supporting Iraqi trade unionists and progressives. Some would contend that whilst there are many crimes being committed by the occupying powers, we have no idea whether or not the violence would end if they left Iraq. Given this, would it not be better to merely try and mitigate the worst behaviour of the occupiers? Shouldn’t our efforts be focused on supporting Iraqi progressives who are not merely suffering under the occupation but also due to reactionary Islamists operating in Iraq? Indeed Blair has argued that the continuing presence of British troops in the country is required to combat the dominance of reactionary Sh’ite militias. These arguments, however, are simply wrong.

            Firstly, whilst the departure of occupying troops would not solve all the problems in Iraq, they are largely part of the problem and their withdrawal is a necessary pre-condition for a stable Iraq; if a house is on fire, it hardly makes sense to continue to pour petrol on the flames simply because the house may burn down anyway. It is also worth pointing out that we are not in charge of US/ UK troops in Iraq – if the occupation is allowed to run its course, it will operate under the control of Bush and Blair and their military commanders. It is utopian to expect the occupation to suddenly become “nice”, even if extreme public outcry (such as that generated after the Abu-Ghraib ‘scandal’) may force the occupiers to curtail the worst excesses. Armies fighting insurgents with significant popular support cannot help but become brutalised – they don’t know who the enemy could be. In the end, all Iraqis become the enemy for many soldiers; such is surely the terrible conclusion of the marines who massacred women and children in Haditha last year and those who raped and murdered a 15 year old Iraqi girl in March this year. In the latter case, the leading soldier reportedly wanted to “go to a house and kill some Iraqis”.[14]

             Blair’s argument that British troops are required in the country to remove violent militias from power ignores the fact that both the Mahdi army and the Badr Corps are tied to some extremely influential politicians who were voted for by Iraqis (in the most recent elections, 77% of Basrans voted for the United Iraqi Alliance, in which the parties tied to these milita are key players[15]). Such milita can be expected to be sustained by democratically elected politicians. Furthermore, the presence of the occupation strengthens support for such groups – 80% of Iraqis had an improved opinion of al-Sadr (the revered leader of the Mahdi army) after he confronted US forces in 2004.[16] Finally, this conclusion is drawn by one of the most vehement critics of such reactionary Islamist groups: the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), which calls for an “immediate withdrawal of occupying forces from Iraq”.[17]

            Similarly, the General Oil Workers’ Union calls for an “immediate unconditional withdrawal of all troops” from Iraq.[18] Iraqi students unions meeting in Baghdad last year also issued a call for an end to the occupation.[19] The Federation of Workers’ Councils and the Union of the Unemployed is clear that “ending the occupation is our mission”; their elected general secretary has been arrested by US forces three times. They risked their own safety by organising a demonstration in Baghdad against the massacre in Falluja. [20] In so doing this, they were behaving in a similar fashion to the General Oil Workers’ Union earlier that year – when they went on strike to protest the assault on Najaf.[21]

            In spite of this, a number of leftists in the UK still feel suspicious about supporting Iraqi trade unions. Some would argue that, whilst the occupation remains, our only role should be to campaign for an immediate end to the occupation. In so doing, they are following an unfortunate precedent set by the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition in its response to the intervention of IFTU representative Abdullah Muhsin at the Labour Party Conference in 2004. They claimed that it was wrong to believe that “genuinely independent trade unionism in Iraq can develop under a regime of military occupation”.[22] Whilst it is certainly true that the occupying forces have tried to suppress trade union activity in Iraq, by endorsing Saddam’s anti-trade union laws and arresting trade unionists, Iraqi trade unions have been able to make progress in spite of the terrible occupation. The General Oil Workers’ Union were able to force Haliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root out of Basra and gain a wage increase by taking industrial action soon after the fall of Saddam.[23]

            The Iraqi government has tried to make trade union activity as hard as possible in the new Iraq – passing order 8750 last year that allows for the assets of trade unions to be confiscated by the state.[24] This highlights the fact that, although the occupation is the major problem facing Iraq and exacerbates all the others, ending the occupation alone will not solve all Iraq’s problems. It is vitally important that, as well as calling for an end to the occupation, those of us on the left take a more pro-active role in supporting Iraqi trade unionists and progressives.

            Sexual abuse and trafficking in women has sky rocketed under the occupation. It is NGOs like the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq that are trying to provide refuges for women in that predicament; we should be offering them support. The Federation of Workers’ Councils and the Union of the Unemployed have been calling for urgent funding; we should be providing them with assistance.

            Some on the left still remain wary about lending support to such organisations. Aren’t we ‘imposing our own views on Iraqis’ by ‘singling out particular groups – i.e. trade unionists and feminists – for support’? What about the support of OWFI for the Hijab ban in France? [25] Furthermore, by offering support to such organisations, aren’t we taking away our efforts from opposing the occupation?

            However, offering support to organisations we feel will best provide hope for a future Iraq is hardly ‘imposing our views on Iraqis’. Exactly how are we enforcing anything on Iraqis against their will? Of course, offering our support to such organisations does not mean supporting all their views. The Hijab ban in France should be condemned by all progressives, and it is important for progressives to combat Islamopohobia in the UK. However, the mistaken views of OWFI on this matter, surely shaped in a context in which violent reactionaries are attempting to restrict women’s freedom in the name of Islam, should not make us loose sight of the important role they play in supporting victims of abuse and repression in Iraq;  I presume that socialists who wish us to work with the Iraqi National Foundation Congress do so on the basis that this will strengthen our efforts to end the occupation – not because they endorse all the views of every participant in this organisation.[26] Also, by supporting Iraqi trade unionists in particular, the anti-war movement is better placed to counter the false claim that Iraqi trade unionists want our troops to stay, therefore British trade unionists must support the continued occupation.

            Already, a number of leftists are coming to the conclusion that we can, and must, oppose the occupation and support Iraqi progressives. The Green Party, which calls for an immediate withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, has endorsed OWFI’s campaign for women’s rights in Iraq.[27] In its latest policies statement, Respect not merely calls for an immediate end to the occupation, but support for “Iraqi trade unions and anti-occupation women’s groups”.[28] These are very positive steps in the right direction. Hopefully, the next Stop the War demonstration, outside the Labour Party Conference this September, will bring us closer to an immediate withdrawal of British troops – and, ultimately, an end to the occupation.  It seems entirely possible that Blair might again try to bolster support for the occupation by claiming that Iraqi trade unionists support the continued occupation. The anti-war movement should be clear: numerous Iraqi trade unionists utterly reject this argument. Socialists must be quite emphatic: we oppose the occupation and we support Iraqi progressives. There is no contradiction between the two.


  1. www.iraqbodycount.net. Last visited, 28/08/06

  2. https://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L10312477.htm

  3. https://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/LSGZ-6NRGZK?OpenDocument&rc=3&emid=ACOS-635P5D

  4. See https://www.iri.org/, Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion, March 23 - 31, 2006, p.40.

  5. MOD Poll, conducted summer 2005. Reported in the Telegraph (23/10/2005).

  6. https://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/home_page/165.php?nid=&id=&pnt=165&lb=hmpg1

  7. See “Evidence Mounts of US War Crimes in Fallujah”, 27 November 2004, www.socialistworker.co.uk. Evidence of other crimes is readily available from www.zmag.org/weluser.htm, https://dahrjamailiraq.com/weblog/ etc.

  8. See https://www.iol.co.za/index.php?sf=2813&click_id=2813&art_id=qw1121432224449B262&set_id=6 for an indication of the support that the assault on Fallujah generated for al-Qaeada among Iraqis who previously rejected the extremism of such groups.

  9. For discussion, see the debate between Gilbert Achar and Alex Callinicos posted on ZNet (www.zmag.org/weluser.htm) last year.

  10. See entry for the 14th of August at www.juancole.com.

  11. See reference 5.

  12.  See reference 6.

  13. See:https://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/oliver_miles/2006/06/do_we_really_want_to_get_out_o.html for discussion of Bush and Blair’s response to suggestions that a fixed term timetable for withdrawal might be drawn up. As Newsweek reported earlier this year (https://msnbc.msn.com/id/13521628/site/newsweek/), Iraqi leaders were contemplating setting a date for withdrawal.

      For further discussion, see Porter, ‘Bush’s Double Gamble’ at   www.zmag.org/weluser.htm

            Most recently, as reported in The Independent on 23/08/06, British defence officials        admitted that a sizeable number of British troops could remain in Iraq ‘indefinitely’.

  1. https://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20060807/ts_afp/iraqusmilitaryrape_060807144548

  2. https://historiae.org/555.asp

  3. Public Opinion in Iraq, First Poll Following Abu-Ghraib Revelations, 14-23 May 2004.

  4. See https://www.equalityiniraq.com/

  5. See www.basraoilunion.org, interview with Hassan Jumaa on ‘Workers’ Control of Industry, PSAs and Union Unity’.

  6. See www.zmag.org/weluser.htm, ‘Student Unions [in Iraq] Call for Withdrawal of Occupation Troops’, 25/06/05.

  7. See https://www.uuiraq.org/.

  8. https://www.labournet.net/world/0501/iraqtu2.html

  9. https://www.stopwar.org.uk/article.asp?id=111004

  10. https://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1417222,00.html

  11. https://www.tuc.org.uk/international/tuc-11305-f0.cfm

  12. https://www.equalityiniraq.com/english/archive/htm/mahmmod180104.htm

  13. See amendments to a resolution submitted to Respect conference 2005 – available at https://www.workersliberty.org/node/5221. For information on the INFC, see: “The Iraqi resistance is a popular resistance”, posted on 23/02/ 2005 on ZNet.

  14. See https://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/2493 and https://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/2400.

  15. See www.respectcoalition.org.






September 2006

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